Producer Laine Kaplan-Levenson speaks with author Shizue Seigel about her book In Good Conscience: Supporting Japanese Americans During the Internment and “From Barbed Wire to Battlefields: Japanese American Experiences in WWII” — a new exhibit at The National WWII Museum.
Laine Kaplan-Levenson: Your book is specifically about people who helped the Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated in the United States during World War II. Can you catch listeners up who aren’t as familiar with that history?
Shizue Seigel: In the case of the Japanese-American incarceration, two-thirds of the 120,000 people who were put behind barbed wire here in the United States during World War II were American-born citizens, and there were no charges made against them. Their only crime, so to speak, was that they were of Japanese ancestry. This book is about the positive stories, because I think one of the qualities about the Japanese-American culture is you don’t hold on to the negative. You try to look for the positive, you kind of roll with it. There’s a term in Japanese called "Shikata ga nai," which sort of means, "if they hand you lemons make lemonade," or, another way I like to think of it is, "living well is the best revenge!"
LKL: What made you want to write about this topic?
SS: Well I’m the third generation Japanese-American. I was born in 1946 a few months after the last incarceration camp closed. My entire extended family was incarcerated. My mother never got over the loss of this beautiful 140 acre ranch that her family had leased along the ocean; she talked about it for the rest of her life. My father, on the other hand, didn’t talk much about camp. But he was in the military for 22 years, and it turned out it was because it was his way of vindicating his family’s loyalty, and he ended up becoming the chief of military security for the eight western states, which is the same position as Colonel Bendetson, who implemented the incarceration! My father had the same job 20 years later and he couldn’t tell anybody because his job was top secret. I myself did not know for another 30 years.
LKL: Wow and you found out because he eventually told you?
SS: No he wrote an article about it in a magazine that I was editing!
LKL: And then you called him up and told him you found his little article! That’s amazing.
We don’t often hear the stories of those who recognized the incarceration was wrong and actually stepped up to help the Japanese-Americans that were in camps. What are some of the struggles and successes of those who decided to help the Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated at that time?
SS: Somebody told me the story of a woman who was incarcerated with her family in one of the camps and after she died her family was going through one of her things. Inside a little trunk wrapped in tissue paper was a little tiny baby dress, and they realized that the Quakers had been sending baby Leeds to the mothers of all the children born in the camps. And one of these Leeds, you know with the receiving blanket and a little dress and some diapers, had come to this woman. Well she had a boy. And she never had a chance to use that dress, but she kept it, because to her it was a reminder that there were people outside somewhere that cared, you know? She was stuck out in some incarceration camp in the middle of Wyoming or something, and it was just a glimmer of hope.
LKL: Thinking about insight, what insight have you gained in looking at why this country incarcerated some of its citizens, and why the nation at that time made that decision?
SS: There’s something about the Eastern way of looking at life that: you don’t complain that something has happened, because it happened! Deal with it. But there is something to be said for what can you do going forward. I don’t think that I really realized, until I started doing the research for the book, how deep the racism was, how institutionalized it was. So I think a lot of Japanese-Americans are very committed to the idea that this should never happen to another group, that no group should ever be targeted because of their race.
Shizue Siegel will speak and sign her book on Thursday March 20. The exhibit at the WWII Museum will be open in the Joe W. and D. D. Brown Foundation Special Exhibit Gallery through October of 2014. Support for WWNO's news coverage is made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.